Sarah Hennies premieres “Contralto,” a film and sound work that exists in between the spaces of experimental music and documentary. The piece features a cast of transgender women speaking, singing, and performing vocal exercises along with a live music score for string quartet and three percussionists, all of whom also perform various sound-making actions using “non-musical” instruments such as paper, bowls of grains, office equipment, etc. The cast of the film includes several former and current students of the Ithaca College Voice and Communication Modification Program for People in the Transgender Community course, offered to aid transgender people in finding a speaking voice that is more suited to their identity. It is not widely known that when a transgender man takes testosterone his vocal cords thicken, causing the pitch of his voice to drop into a so-called “masculine” range. The same, however, is not true for trans women whose voices are unaffected by higher levels of estrogen. Being a woman with a “male voice” creates a variety of difficult situations for trans women including prolonged and intensified dysphoria and higher risk of harassment and violence due to possibly exposing someone as trans unintentionally. This creates a situation where transgender women’s identities are betrayed by their bodies.
“Contralto” - defined in musical terms as “the lowest female singing voice” - uses the sound of trans women’s voices to explore trans identity from the inside and expose a profound and queer relationship between gender and experimental sound studies.